For most people today, stopping to get a shoe shine is kind of an alien thing, and that’s sad. Once ubiquitous in major metropolitan areas, the giant chairs where someone would plop down for a quick respite while getting a buff on their loafers now look like monoliths of a bygone era; one that slowly disappeared thanks to a reliance on more disposable, cheaper footwear designed to literally be run into the ground.
There are still some who passionately adhere to the small, inexpensive luxury of getting a shoe shine, like Canadian filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum, director of the documentary Shiners, which screens at The Royal in Toronto on February 17, 18, and 20. The art of the shoe shine first captured Tenenbaum’s imagination when she was on a six month work placement in Mumbai, India in 1997. She would get her shoes shined every day by the same shiner. From that point on, she was hooked and fascinated.
Over the years, the filmmaker would chat with various shiners she would run into around the world in her travels, and Tenenbaum eventually came around to the idea of making a film about them. Shiners finds Tenenbaum travelling to New York to visit with Don Ward, a Manhattan icon with decades of experience and a larger than life personality, and owner of A Shine & Co., a company whose philosophy around shoe shining helps the shiner as much as it helps their patrons. She went to Japan to look at an upscale shoe shining salon designed for those who like the finer things in life, and to the slums of La Paz where the city’s thousands of shoe shiners are constantly ridiculed for their lowly jobs. Finally, for some Canadian flair, Tenenbaum heads to Etobicoke to profile Vincent Zacharko, a Ryerson student and apprentice barber who shines shoes at the Nite Own Barber Shop.
Tenenbaum caught up with us last year over the phone from Montreal and prior to the film’s premiere at Hot Docs to talk about how Shiners hopes to make shoe shining cool again.
You said that you first got struck by the shoeshine bug years ago while you were on a placement in Mumbai, but going back even further than that, what was your first experience with shoe shining, and did you really know anything about it or have thoughts about it before you started going to other people to get your shoes shined?
Stacey Tenenbaum: I had none at all. I actually didn’t come from a family where people shined their shoes. I knew a lot of people who did, and they would learn from their parents and remember their father doing it for them and showing them, but that wasn’t really my family. We never did shoe shining, and we never really thought about it. I really only did get into it, like you said, when I was doing this work placement. It was then that it became a habit, and it was a fun habit, so it sort of stuck with me.
After you started getting into getting your shoes shined and before and after making this film, did it change how you shop for shoes, and it did it change how you look at this sort of disposable culture that we live in now where people don’t necessarily buy a lot of high priced shoes anymore that they’re going to keep, hold onto, and care for?
Stacey Tenenbaum: That was a huge thing for me, actually. That was a major thing that I learned about while making this film. I’m guilty of wearing running shoes, wearing sandals, buying cheap shoes, and just running them into the ground. After doing this film, I totally see the value in buying good, well made shoes; shoes that are stitched instead of glued, so you can repair the soles. I got heavily into shoes as a result of this. (laughs) I have all kinds of shoe cravings now. (laughs)
When I was reading up on the film, I read that Vincent, the shoe shiner from Toronto who’s in your film, reached out to you on Instagram, which is kind of a cool signifier that suggests that shoe shining is getting hip again. Is that something that you’ve noticed?
Stacey Tenebaum: I think that you do get this feeling that among men in particular you have been seeing a lot of that. Part of this is because we have this sort of retro feeling that is bringing people back to things that are handmade. You see it with Etsy, too. This new generation is starting to come back around and give value to that, and they appreciate things that they can make or do with their hands. They like to buy things that are well made and care for them. Vincent really showed me that. A few of his friends who were at the shoot getting their shoes shined were young and kind of similar in that respect. They wanted quality things they could care for, and shoe shining was part of that, obviously.
Something that the film notes and that you yourself have noted is that not too many women seem to get their shoes shined as much as men do anymore. Is there anything you wanted to say or do to convince more women to get their shoes shined?
Stacey Tenenbaum: I want to convince EVERYBODY to get their shoes shined! (laughs) It’s such a great feeling! It feels good on your feet. It’s like a little massage, and it’s an affordable luxury. It costs about five bucks, usually, and that’s not a lot. It also makes you feel good. When you see someone walk away from a shoe shine, they walk away taller and happier. It’s a real boost that’s so cheap to do, that I’m surprised that more people don’t do it more often.
When I was researching some of the shoe shiners in your film, I was amazed to see how many videos there are of Don Ward there were. It makes perfect sense when you see him in the film, but what’s it like filming someone with as much personality as him on a crowded major street in New York City?
Stacey Tenenbaum: He has a really hectic day, and he’s always on. I don’t know how he does it, and it actually looks so exhausting. You’ll see in the film that there’s one shot that we have of him at the end of his day, and he just looks so exhausted. It was pretty wild spending a day with him. But the good thing about New York is that people don’t care about cameras there. (laughs) It’s so easy to film on a corner, but you also get all these great New York characters who will come and get their shoes shined. My sound mixer, just the other day, actually, said to me, “Did you just set up all these characters to get their shoes shined?” Nope! These are real people in New York, and I set nothing up. It was a great place to film, but it was both tiring and exciting. He’s just the most fun to be around, and personally, I like having a conversation with my shiner, and that’s something he provides to everyone if they want it. You’re also up so, so high in his chair, and you can see so much of the city from up there. He’s a show in his own right, and he’s a number one thing for someone to see in New York. He’s awesome.
An interesting comparison to Don’s day would be when you go to Tokyo and you go to a shop where it seems like a boutique spa for shoes, and the attendant hands patrons a glass of champagne while they wait, but that’s also a major urban centre like New York.
Stacey Tenenbaum: That place is PARADISE, I’m telling you! (laughs) It’s so noisy outside there in Tokyo, and it’s just so crazy and hectic, and you just walk into this place that’s super quiet and it smells like wood and leather. They were trying to recreate the feeling of a real gentleman’s club, and people would come in, have a drink, and chat for about forty-five minutes. It’s a long shoe shine, and you get the sense that he’s more of a barber. He has conversations with people, and people act like they’re buddies. I think in Tokyo, it’s just so hectic outside that the luxury of taking forty-five minutes out of your day for a shoe shine and to just sit back and relax is something we’ve lost. People don’t do that anymore, and I loved Tokyo for that. It was an amazing place to be.
Obviously, the big counterpoint to Tokyo would be when you go to La Paz, which is the exact opposite because although there are a lot of shoe shiners there, they cover their faces out of shame, and they’re treated in the stereotypical way I think many people already see shoe shiners as, which are as these lowly people. Were you struck in particular by anything you saw there, and did it take any convincing to get people to open up about a profession that’s both common and derided there?
Stacey Tenenbaum: I was a little bit worried. I did two trips to La Paz. I did one trip at first as a research trip, and I stayed there for a week, and I met with people. I was a bit worried that people wouldn’t want to talk to me, or that they wouldn’t want to show their faces, and they ended up being really friendly, and welcoming, and they were really excited that someone was going to be talking about their profession that had respect for it. They don’t get a lot of respect, so they were a lot more welcoming and generous with their time that I thought they would have been. They let us into their lives and their homes, and while that was lovely and unexpected, it’s sad to see how they’re treated there. But the other cool thing about La Paz is that they’re in the city that gets their shoes shined the most. There are over 2,000 shoe shiners in La Paz, and everyone gets their shoes shined. From the poorest to the richest, they all value the act of getting your shoes shined, which is more interesting when you realize that a lot of the people don’t value those who are giving the service.
And in terms of the perceptions of shoe shining, with the film, I think I wanted to showcase the range of experiences. That was always a big part of it. La Paz was the lowest of the low, and Tokyo was the highest of the high, but even in La Paz, they still take pride in their work. They’re proud of it, and some of them love their job even when they’re treated poorly, and I thought that was always worth including in the film even if it does play into someone of the stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about shoe shiners.
Did you learn any important trade secrets from any of the shiners that you’re going to incorporate into your own shoe shining?
Stacey Tenenbaum: I am the WORST shoe shiner in the world. I am so bad at it, and I even bought the polishes and tried to do it myself, and I just couldn’t get it to a point that I liked. Vincent would always tell his clients that if your shoe ever got scuffed up not too long after a shine to just rub it on your jeans or your pants and it will buff up a little, and I thought that was a cute tip, and I have found myself doing that one. Otherwise, I would rather go to a shiner. For five bucks either way, why would I want to do a crappy shine myself when I could have someone else do an amazing one? I will always say, “Go to a shiner.”
Shiners screens at The Royal on Saturday, February 17 at 7:30, Sunday, February 18 at 4:30, and Tuesday, February 20 at 7:00. Tenenbaum and subject Vincent Zacharko will be in attendance for a Q&A following the screenings on the 17th and 18th.
Portions of this interview first appeared in Toronto Film Scene last year.